“This is a story about control”: On the Politics o...

“This is a story about control”: On the Politics of Pop

In the early 2010s, pop had a political resurgence. Lady Gaga’s 2011 single “Born This Way” revitalized a discussion of acceptance of othered sexual, gendered, and to a lesser degree ethnoracial, identities. For one, an acknowledgement of transness in a hugely successful pop song, several years prior to late 2014’s Trans Moment, was, to some, trailblazing. Nonetheless, the radicalism of “Born This Way” was muted: Gaga may have name-dropped transness, among other identities, but her activism stopped there. Such a song and its accompanying album, which were bound for success given Gaga’s prior achievements, represented a prime opportunity to employ artists fitting exactly those labels that Gaga referencing. But where was the involvement of queer, trans, and racialized creatives beyond employment as backup dancers in one video? Better even than involvement would have been the implementation of ‘acceptance’ via the centering of queer, trans, and racialized experiences in Gaga’s art.

Gaga’s ‘acceptance’ could also be spun as perpetuating an all too common power imbalance, one that involves those who are privileged along any number of lines choosing how and when to grant visibility, agency, and dignity to those who are treated as ‘others’. Indeed, something about Gaga’s grocery list of identities read, even then, as off ‒ ‘chola’? ‘Orient’? ‘Beige’? Should Gaga have forgotten the shallow (though unprecedented) shout-outs and left the radical ownership of othered identities to trans, queer, and racialized artists, or was her kind of acknowledgement a necessary precursor, in a field as fickle as pop music, to the latter kind of expression?

If Gaga attempted to make privilege progressive by ushering in a new wave of political pop, the artist who has become emblematic of the trend overall is surely Beyoncé. The never ending stream of Beyoncé-inspired thinkpieces (could one more hurt?) has often tried to address the fundamental dilemma of balancing the amplification of marginalized artistic voices, and unfairly demanding that they stand for the communities to which they belong. One question asked in particular of Beyoncé has involved her mutation from pop singer to political artist: was it opportunistic or authentic?

Perhaps the debate around the contrition of Beyoncé’s transition from pop star to political artist can be clarified by looking back to her one of her strongest influences: Janet Jackson, an artist who managed a very similar transition to Beyoncé’s. Janet is not at the forefront of today’s culture, quite possibly due to the maelstrom of misogynoir that exploded from her 2004 Super Bowl performance, when Justin Timberlake exposed Jackson’s breast on live television. We may forget the extent to which Jackson was unfairly blacklisted for the incident: her contract to star in a Hollywood film was annulled, her invitation to perform at the upcoming Grammys withdrawn, her singles and videos from 2004’s Damita Jo banned on stations and channels internationally. While Timberlake survived unscathed, Jackson had to fight to get Damita to Platinum (and she did!). Nonetheless, her sales and public presence were undeniably and irreversibly diminished by the incident.

Despite her understandable withdrawal from the public sphere, the truth is that Jackson’s success was unparalleled. With the 1991 renewal of her contract with Virgin, Jackson became the highest-paid recording artist at the time; five years later, she became the highest-paid recording artist of all time, surpassing even Madonna and her brother Michael. Jackson’s rule over pop culture, stretching from the mid-’80s through the late ‘90s, is in many ways comparable to Beyoncé’s current position as the monolith of North American pop culture.

But a deeper link exists between the two artists: a remarkably similar transition from pop to politics. Jackson’s first two albums, released in the early ‘80s, were dancey but lightweight affairs that floated under the pop-cultural radar. Beyoncé’s first two solo outings, Dangerously in Love (2003) and B’Day (2006), were much more successful – the explosive success of Beyonce’s debut single “Crazy in Love” and its follow-up “Baby Boy” immediately established her viability as a solo artist. Despite Dangerously in Love’s now-canonical singles and Beyoncé’s virtuosic vocal stylings throughout the album, the songwriting, and the message as to Beyonce’s own identity and place within the pop music field, were not particularly pronounced. Many tracks were not significant departures from Beyoncé’s style as a member of Destiny’s Child, and could easily have appeared on the group’s Destiny Fulfilled, released the year after Dangerously. 2006’s B’Day saw some tip-toeing from the pop-R&B of Destiny’s Child into funk and hip-hop territory, and spawned the undeniable “Irreplaceable” ‒ but despite some musical experimentation and significant commercial success, Beyoncé had yet to crystallize a solid public identity, and a defined relationship to her fans. If Taylor Swift would become Your Best Friend, Rihanna the answer to the question ‘what if we all all gave no fucks?,’ and Adele the definitive accompaniment to crying, what of Beyoncé? The ways her music would be used in everyday life, and the particular feelings it would evoke in listeners, had yet to be solidified.

This changed with the 2008 release of I Am… Sasha Fierce and “Single Ladies,” which not only spawned an international dance craze at the level of the Twist or the Locomotion, but cemented its performer’s identity as a pop culture figure. “Single Ladies” was something of a sequel to Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” (and a far cry from “Cater 2 U”): a generalized but empowering rallying cry in a culture that persistently treats women who are happy out of a relationship with suspicion and degradation.

Jackson’s third release, 1986’s Control, similarly propelled her into the upper echelon of pop culture. The album famously begins with a voice-over: “This is a story about control… Control of what I say, control of what I do.” The enormously successful release was, like the later half of Sasha Fierce, replete with hard-hitting, futuristic R&B sonics and a message of independence that was by turns spunky (“What Have You Done For Me Lately”) and gently assertive (“Let’s Wait Awhile”). The opening voice-over served not only as a thematic prologue, but also specified the album’s content as a story ‒ a personal experience molded into a generalizable narrative. The personal experiences at hand were Janet’s publicized emancipation from her father/manager, the draconian Jackson patriarch Joe, and a defiant creative foray into the music she was putting out. Beyoncé’s emancipatory third album and accompanying tour also used personal backdrops ‒ increasing authorship over music and performance, and the genesis of the alter-ego Sasha Fierce ‒ to convey an empowered, though relatable, message: this Beyoncé implored listeners to uncover their own Sasha Fierce… or something to that effect. Simultaneous with Beyoncé’s new reclamation of spinsterhood (nevermind that she married Jay Z in the same year) was her severance of professional ties to her father/manager Mathew Knowles.

Janet and Beyoncé initiated their transitions from inoffensive pop stardom ‒ think performances alongside Jewel ‒ to political spokespeople by, as the saying goes, making the personal political, rather than explicitly engaging with issues of politics and social inequality. Was this a necessary stepping stone from the strictly ‘personal’ narratives of their earlier work, or were these eras complete political statements of their own? On the one hand, the albums that followed from both artists delved explicitly into social justice (Jackson’s masterful concept album Rhythm Nation 1814, a work that thematically tackled race and class while helping to define new jack swing; and Beyoncé’s diverse 4, which, with the help of several awe-inspiring performances of “Run the World (Girls),” completed the politicization of her image). On the other, Janet and Beyonce’s emancipatory experiences as women of colour under both cultural and familial patriarchies, as recounted in their earlier, less overtly political albums, are undoubtedly radical in their way.

Indeed, Janet and Beyoncé would return with renewed purpose to the personal for their next albums, janet. (that is, Janet, no Jackson) and Beyoncé (no Knowles, either). Most significantly, both LPs wound unbridled sexual expression with bold statements about (in)equality. janet. positioned the explicit “If” and the public-sex-slow-jam “Any Time, Any Place” next to the admissions of “New Agenda”: “I’ve heard ‘no’ too many times / Because of my race . . . African-American woman / I stand tall with pride.” And the image of Beyonce standing in front of a screen emblazoned “FEMINIST” (referencing her citation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in “***Flawless”) has been seared into all of our brains. Next for both was a rich, textured, and post-genre concept album that seamlessly interwove political and personal struggle. Janet’s The Velvet Rope is a record about depression, sexual experimentation, and death that uses the image of the titular rope as a metaphor for private and public selves and social stratification.

Beyonce’s audiovisual opus Lemonade received deserved acclaim for its integration of poetry, dance, and music and its linkage of a narrative of infidelity to the common and diverse experiences of black women in the U.S. Clearly, by their sixth albums, both artists had been camped on the political side of the equation for some time. The question remains, however, of whether this transition was an opportunistic act of bandwagon-hopping ‒ particularly for Beyoncé, in light of Lady Gaga’s ushering in of ‘acceptance/empowerment’ ‒ or an emblem of the artists’ own burgeoning interest in social justice and unequal experience as individuals living in the same society as all of us. Original intention aside, Beyoncé’s transition appears to have become, at some point, an embrace of the political responsibility an influential artist arguably owes their culture, and it had profound and seemingly positive effects. Does the question of contrition particularly matter, if positions were rethought, experiences were reconsidered, and concepts were researched?

Janet and Beyoncé’s careers take on an additional political dimension considering the rough patches of their political rebrandings. The debate around Beyoncé’s feminism that ensued following the release of Beyoncé, the faff about the ostensible corrupting power of her body in whichever state of undress, and the controversy around her use of Black Panther imagery at the 2016 Super Bowl recalled, albeit mutedly, what Jackson endured following her own Super Bowl performance. Nolan Feeney at The Atlantic has linked Jackson’s total blacklisting post-Super Bowl to the jezebel stereotype ‒ a narrative of black women as salacious and promiscuous originating in European colonialism and American slavery that was (and is) used to justify sexual assaults against them.

Intentionally or not, she and Janet have asked crucially important questions of the public: why do we feel a liberty to project meanings, whether liberatory or demonizing, onto black women’s bodies (why, in the wake of the Super Bowl, was Jackson’s body the most-ever searched term online)? Why must they, their music, and their bodies, stand, positively or negatively, for something outside themselves? Why are we willing to make concessions of others ‒ Timberlake, most ridiculously ‒ and not them? Why have we been so quick to criticize and denounce black women’s feminisms, labelled as such or otherwise, and equally quick to forget the movement’s blatantly exclusionary history?
Regardless of the particularities of Beyoncé’s and Janet’s feminisms, their art, and their experiences, the very fact of their demanding such answers from their audiences is undeniably political, progressive, and radical.